Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Oates examines the phenomena of the charismatic evangelist and individual religious experience in depth. The narrative allows for two opposing interpretations of the life of Nathan Vickery. As an abused, sensitive child exposed to rabid religious sentiment, Nathan is ripe for the onset of visions. The physical description of his episodes suggests seizures and possible schizophrenia. Nathan in this sense is a victim of his sordid beginnings and unfortunate cultural upbringing. Encouraged in his religious fervor, untutored in normal human interactions, and revered by thousands as having special knowledge and favor, Nathan eventually believes himself to be the monster that they have created. Through all of this, he seeks most fervently his own redemption, an intimacy with the spirit of God that he has never known among his own people.

A second interpretation of Nathan’s experience provokes a startling, though no less tragic, conclusion. If readers allow themselves to believe that Nathan’s religious experience is valid, that he truly communes with God and seeks to follow His will, then Nathan’s evolution follows a path that leads him increasingly farther from humanity. To believe in the biblical messages as fully as Nathan does causes him to retreat from personal contact; to accept the message that God is all we need drives him further away. When Nathan understands that his followers and even his fellow preachers do not share his intense understanding, his isolation grows and develops into a self-centered importance that elevates him far above the people who hunger for his message. Oates reveals the inherent destruction of the literal message of Christianity. Nathan’s final vision of an all-devouring God of Chaos shakes him yet does not cure his desire be one with that greater force. A recurring theme is that of hunger, whether of the wild dogs at the beginning of the novel or the masses who flock to hear Nathan’s apocalyptic message. The image of a hungry stray dog recurs twice: during Leonie’s seduction of Nathan, implying his physical hunger, and at the end of the book, symbolizing his spiritual hunger.